A Deeper Look Into King County's $210 Million Youth Detention Project

Powerful Voices has a 17-year history of bringing programming into King County Juvenile Detention to support girls explore their right to feel safe,make healthy choices and advocate for themselves. Within this context, and because of our value of justice, our staff team has been actively following the current project by King County to expand the facility.

Last Saturday, the house was packed during the Squire Park Neighborhood Council Meeting. This neighborhood took a stand against structural racism by withdrawing their support of the new youth jail. A $210 million project by King County to expand the current youth detention facility by adding twice as many beds and beautifying the overall appearance of the facility. Community members of Squire Park urged King County to stop the process of building the youth jail until the County conducts a racial and economic impact assessment with true community input.

With the discussion around the expansion of the King County’s youth jail starting to heat up we have been asking ourselves some big questions around the issue:
  • What really is the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC)?
  • How does the School-to-Prison-Pipeline work? And in which ways does the School-to-Prison-Pipeline feed into the PIC?
  • How do I personally contribute and/or benefit from the PIC? How do these two phenomena affect my communities?
  • Do they disproportionately affect communities of color?
  • How about the youth? As a county, have we thoroughly considered alternatives to locking youth up?

Let’s examine a few facts around youth detention in King County:

Crime is down in King County. Also, the population in our current jail has been in decline for the last few years.
  • King County has been reducing the use of the jail for youth: the average daily population was 191 in 1998; in 2012 it was only 70. The population of the jail has decreased by over 50%.

Studies have found that incarcerating youth does not reduce crime.
  • The Annie E. Casey Foundation reports that in 2012, only 14% of youth held in secure confinement across the country were held for violent offenses.
  • According to the Justice Policy Institutes 2006 policy brief, The Dangers of Detention, jailing youth has little to no relationship with reductions in crime in the community, increases recidivism (instead of reducing it), pulls youth deeper into the system, causes additional harm to youth with special needs or experiencing mental illness, and greatly reduces youth success in the labor market.

Current policies disproportionately affect youth of color.
  • In 2012, a total of 1,320 young people were held in secure detention at the youth jail at 12th and Alder, 39.55% (522) of whom were African American, even though African Americans made up only 9.8% of the 2011 total youth population in King County; Native Americans comprised 2.5% (33) of those detained, though they made up only 1.1% of the 2011 youth population in the County.
  • Black youth were jailed two times as often as white youth, even though white youth outnumber black youth in King County 7:1.

While Powerful Voices realizes that the current youth jail facility needs to renovated, our staff support the No New Youth Jail Campaign’s mission for King County to conduct a racial equity impact assessment with input and accountability to the communities that will be most affected. Also, considering Powerful Voice’s own history of working within the current youth jail we are in support of thoroughly examining alternatives with a focus on prevention over detention. We believe that the $210 million allocated for construction of the new youth jail could be invested (with more impact) on a modest upgrade of the current facility and community-based prevention/intervention programs and services. We believe that youth should not have to enter the Juvenile Justice system to have access to these services.

We are curious to hear what you think.


  1. What I think...

    First, I think is is distracting to talk about a $210 million "construction of the new youth jail." The juvenile detention facility is only one part of the Youth Services Center and the planned building replacement.

    Second, I think it is inaccurate to say that the money is being used, "to expand the current youth detention facility by adding twice as many beds..." The reality is that there will be far fewer beds in the new facility than in the existing facility. The number of beds may be twice the current average occupancy, but there will be no "expanding" of capacity.

    Third, I think that when youth and families experiencing a time of crisis and find themselves in the Youth Services Center, they don't deserve to be serviced in a dilapidated, run down building. There is a long list of problems with the current building, of which anyone weighing in on this topic should already be aware. If not, Google "replacement of YSC king county" and take a look at the project overview. Or ask someone who works, teaches, or attends school there. Maybe ask why all of the water fountains are "out of order."

    Lastly, disproportionate minority contact is a real problem in our country. We are fortunate to live in a county that is enthusiastic about identifying and addressing issues of DMC, which is much easier said than done. However, arguing that we should not replace the Youth Services Center because DMC exists is akin to arguing against replacing a dilapidated elementary school because bullying exists. It isn't fair to the people who need those facilities.

    TL;DR Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.


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